Thoughts on the self


The universal conscious fact is not “feelings and thoughts exist,” but “I think” and “I feel”. No psychology, at any rate, can question the existence of personal selves. The worst a psychology can do is so to interpret the nature of these selves as to rob them of their worth.
-William James, Principles of Psychology, 1890

So, if we are to take William James seriously, the question seems to be: should we we rob our “personal selves” of their worth by postulating neuroscientific models that attempt to “reduce” the self to nothing but the firing of neurons? Or perhaps we should fully accept the perceived phenomenological “existence” of the self as something that simply cannot be explained in brain terms? Regardless, I think there is something of a false dichotomy going on here. We need not rely solely on intra-cranial brain theories of the self, but rather, we should inject them with a radical conceptual framework that moves away from traditional Western conception of the self as a unitary, executive controller.

Buddhists have long conceptualized the self as something impermanent and illusionary, not capable of being meaningfully described or categorized. This concept of “no-self” has important philosophical implications that I think are relevant to the Western brain-based scavenger hunt for the soul. Perhaps a simple thought experiment can illustrate why a illusionary conception of the self can have useful explanatory power:

Imagine you are stranded in some remote location and you have a teletransporter that will dismantle the atoms that constitute your body and zap them through space to another location to be re-assembled. Would you use it? Well, of course! But stop and think for a moment about who steps out of the transporter. Would it be you stepping out, or a mere replica. Afterall, your original body and brain was vanquished and if your self-hood isn’t stored in your body and brain, where is it stored? Does it even make sense to conceive of the self as something capable of being destroyed? Does it even make sense to conceive the self at all? Surely, you might think, there has to be something there to be explained, but what could it be?

I am found of how philosopher Daniel Dennett deals with this problem of perceived, but illusionary selves. He attributes these philosophical problems to the fact that often we think in all-or-nothing terms. Either the self exists or it doesn’t. Dennett thinks that this line of thought leads to the conceptual pitfalls and muddles that arise in thought experiments such as the teleportation case. Under Dennetts view, the self is best viewed as a “center of narrative gravity”. Essentially, we build up a series of micro-stories about ourselves and our place in the world and this autobiographical conglomeration gives rise to the illusion of a central self simply due to the fact that all these stories happen to a single body. However, this “bundle view” of the self has important philosophical ramifications simply because it calls into question ideas concerning responsibility and agency. As Dennett phrases it, “Our tales are spun, but for the most part we don’t spin them;they spin us. Our human consciousness, and our narrative selfhood, is their product, not their source”.


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